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Interview

Former congressman: Give Democrats something to be for, not against, on Israel

Robert Wexler, who was considered as Biden’s envoy to Israel, says Bennett’s interest in narrowing conflict with Palestinians offers chance to promote policies Dems can get behind

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Robert Wexler, President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and former Representative from Florida, addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Robert Wexler, President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and former Representative from Florida, addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

While criticism of Israel has become increasingly common in the Democratic Party, a former congressman and former candidate to serve as US President Joe Biden’s next ambassador to the Jewish state believes that the new government in Jerusalem presents an opportunity to reverse the trend.

“I’m very encouraged by the prospects of the new Israeli government and what seems to be a genuine desire to rebuild the bipartisan foundation of the US-Israeli relationship,” said Robert Wexler, the current head of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

Wexler spoke to The Times of Israel by phone last week at the tail end of a trip to Israel, where he met with the various leaders of parties making up the new coalition, consulting with them on how they might go about engaging with an increasingly polarized Washington.

Wexler said the message he sought to convey during those meetings with Naftali Bennett (Yamina) who this week became prime minister; Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope), now justice minister; Merav Michaeli (Labor), now transportation minister; Nitzan Horovitz (Meretz), now health minister; Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas and others was the necessity for “rebuilding the foundation of bipartisan support in the US for Israel.”

Can bipartisanship be restored?

It won’t be an easy task for Bennett’s new government.

Former US president Donald Trump, who argued that Jews who don’t support the GOP show “great disloyalty” to Israel, still wields significant influence among Republicans. One of his fiercest proponents in the House, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, tweeted Sunday that “Bibi hatred” is the “sole organizing principle” of the new coalition led by Bennett, exposing how internal rifts in Israeli politics have jumped across the Atlantic.

The newly sworn in Israeli government pose for a group photo at the president’s residence in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Among Democrats, the progressive wing and its vision of intersectionality has seen expanded influence, increasingly leading to the likening of the Palestinians’ plight to the struggles of Blacks and other minorities in the US.

Wexler said that the key to making inroads with Democrats in such a climate will be for the new Israeli government to advance policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians that those lawmakers can get behind.

“The vast majority of Democrats want to be for something in regard to Israel,” Wexler, a former Democratic lawmaker representing Florida’s 19th district, argued. “So we, being the supporters of the American-Israel relationship, need to help promote policy that is agreeable to the new Israeli government, is consistent with their security concerns, and improves conditions for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Pressed for examples, Wexler proposed expanding freedom of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank, increasing housing opportunities for Palestinians in Area C of the territory, where Israel maintains overarching control, and exploring different family reunification formulas for Palestinians living on opposite sides of the Green Line.

The former congressman said that he did not get into specifics with the party leaders but simply insisted that they demonstrate “genuine desire to narrow the conflict.”

Bennett told Channel 12 earlier this month, “My philosophy is to shrink the conflict. We won’t solve it, but where we can — more crossings, more [improvements to Palestinian] quality of life, more business — we will do.”

The newly sworn in Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives for a group photo of the new government, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Such initiatives have not been raised often in recent years as former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a policy that prioritized improving Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors over ties with the Palestinians.

That vacuum has been filled by growing calls from Democrats to pressure Israel into expanding Palestinian rights, and the introduction of unprecedented resolutions seeking to block weapons sales to Jerusalem during the recent hostilities with Gaza. Those initiatives failed as the Biden administration and most Democrats in Congress are still more aligned with Israel than the progressive wing of the party, but that critical minority isn’t going away.

Biden appeared to acknowledge as much during one of his calls to then-prime minister Netanyahu during the 11-day conflict in May. A source familiar with the matter said that in his efforts to broker a ceasefire, Biden explained that he would not be able to fend off for much longer pressure from lawmakers in his party who were disturbed by the high death toll and devastation in Gaza.

Climate change out, actions on the Palestinian front in

A senior aide to a progressive Congress member agreed that Israeli initiatives to improve Palestinian livelihood would be welcomed by Democrats.

“They’d be taken more seriously than a lot of the efforts we’ve seen until now,” the staffer said, claiming that recent outreach efforts by Israeli officials to Democrats focusing on climate change and other progressive-minded issues have often been viewed as “disingenuous efforts to avoid dealing with the Palestinian issue.”

The aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, added that Israel raising the Palestinian issue would not be enough on its own and that progressive Democrats will want to see actions, even while they recognize that the new government was just sworn in and that such things take time.

Palestinian laborers line up to cross a checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

“Coming here and talking about how much you want peace won’t cut it anymore,” the staffer continued, scoffing at recent recommendations by mainstream Jewish communal leaders that Israel dispatch the more dovish Michaeli to Washington to present a more progressive case for Israel to Democratic lawmakers.

While Bennett’s longtime opposition to Palestinian statehood may limit the degree of Democratic embrace, Wexler suggested that this would be less of an issue given that the Biden administration is not currently aiming to restart peace negotiations toward a two-state outcome.

He clarified that steps by Israel to “narrow the conflict” would also need to be met by steps from the Palestinian Authority to end incitement against the Jewish state in its school textbooks and to reform its welfare system, which includes payments to security prisoners in Israeli jails.

The almost-ambassador

Wexler’s deep familiarity with the US-Israel relationship and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spanning decades of work on the issue both before and after his 13 years in Congress, led to him twice being considered for the position of ambassador to Israel. He turned down the first offer, which came from then-president Barak Obama, instead to stay on as the head of the DC-based Center for Middle East Peace.

After reports in April named former State Department official Thomas Nides as the frontrunner for the position in the Biden administration, several Jewish groups, Israel officials and a handful of Congressional Democrats began lobbying the White House to tap Wexler instead.

Ultimately, the administration went with Nides, who has close ties with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Obama. Biden is expected to make the announcement in the coming days.

Doing his best to appear unfazed over being passed up, Wexler said he still planned to “do everything in my power to assist the Biden administration and members of both parties to strengthen the relationship between the US and Israel.”

Rep. Robert Wexler, Democrat of Florida (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Israel in July 2009. (Government Press Office via JTA)

‘Golden opportunities’

Wexler acknowledged that there is a “lively debate in the Democratic Party” on Israel, but maintained that the new government in Jerusalem “presents an opportunity to redirect that debate to a positive outcome.”

He argued that the Abraham Accords furthering Israel’s normalization in the region present a “golden opportunity” around which both US parties can rally.

“The Biden administration can do what the Trump administration could not, which is bring the Palestinians into the process of furthering the Abraham Accords. This creates a win-win-win for Israel, the Palestinians and the US,” Wexler said.

“I found the new leaders of Israel’s prospective government to be genuinely committed in the most earnest way of building the strongest relationship possible with the United States,” he added, encouraging the Biden administration to view faction heads across the political spectrum as partners rather than focus their efforts on the government’s more dovish figures.

The former congressman recommended that Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who is set to take over as prime minister in 2023, both play active roles in Israel’s ties with the US.

“I think it would be a wonderful source of unity for Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid to approach America together,” he said. “There’s a remarkable story to tell about the inclusion of an Islamist Arab party in their new Israeli government. It is historic, and this degree of diversity should make all Americans proud of our special relationship with Israel.

“In America, we always talk about bipartisanship as a goal. Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid just achieved a bipartisan government. We should applaud and welcome that,” he added.

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